When MEA member Scott Buckmaster entered the MEA/MAEA Art Acquisitions Purchase Exhibition – now on display at MEA headquarters – he figured it was a chance to have a provocative work of art seen and understood by its intended audience: educators.
It came as a shock when he learned his electronic, mixed media creation – with a “pointed” message about the current state of public education – had won Best in Show.
“It’s kind of a representation of a rough couple of years in teaching,” said Buckmaster, a working artist who lives in Cadillac and teaches art in Pine River Area Schools. “I was trying to make a piece that would make you laugh to keep from crying.”
Juror Craig Fisher, an Ohio-based artist whose work has shown extensively in the U.S. and abroad, said the submissions to the MEA/MAEA exhibition displayed “an amazing array of talent and risk taking.”
“My focus was on building a diverse selection of artistic expression and technical quality,” Fisher said. “Mixed media made a strong showing from textile art to felted wool. In addition, many of the traditional media such as oil and watercolor displayed strong compositional elements.
“Finally, I think that personal playfulness and whimsy of some of the works made for a wonderful viewing experience overall.”
Run by a series of electric motors attached to the back of a bingo-like game board, Buckmaster’s winning art work features the head-and-shoulders of a cartoon teacher positioned behind the board with one arm coming across it, pointer finger extended.
The motors power the teacher’s arm moving up and dropping down, the teacher’s bobble head bobbling and flag waving, and a recording of traditional circus music – all of which lends to the work’s satirical feel.
The 1950s styling and rust-colored spots combine to create the sense of an antique-left-in-the-garage-too-long. A dialogue bubble by the teacher’s head announces, “It’s fun!”
The arm points toward bingo squares containing events and circumstances Buckmaster says he has experienced in 25 years of teaching, such as No heat in room, Student making animal noises, Deep data dig, Lice, board member micromanaging, Too hot in room, PD not applicable or a repeat, and Teacher dies of COVID.
Bullet holes, 9-mm shell casings, and depictions of blood stains decorate the board. Underneath the tripod stand holding it, Buckmaster tossed how-to-teach books, broken pencils, and the thick file of notes and observations from his student teaching experience.
His goal was to pour all of the stereotypes, anger and angst of educators into one project. Titled “2022/A Career in Motion/**** You” (asterisks added), the work is a cry against standardized testing which he believes has “hijacked” education and harmed students and educators over the past 25 years.
“Obviously the title is a little off-color, but it expresses a sentiment of what it feels like to be a teacher right now,” he said. “It’s been disturbing to be on the inside and watching a lot of this occur – things like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top that made everything about test scores.
“Tests were meant to show where a student is at – to show their potential. Testing wasn’t supposed to be used to hurt teachers, to be held against them if their kids didn’t function like every other cog in a machine.”
Buckmaster, whose father and grandfather were longtime educators, loves helping kids to explore art, find their voice, and mature as young people. However, the last two years with COVID, battles over masks, and attacks on educators have been the hardest of his career. This year will be his last, he said.
“For darn near 100 years, a Buckmaster has been teaching in this state. I’ve lived education for my entire life, and it’s really concerning to me what direction it is headed in. Education has almost come to a breaking point, and it’s sad.”
Buckmaster and his wife brought the piece to East Lansing from Cadillac on the Saturday of judging in March. After dropping it off at MEA, he and his wife enjoyed an afternoon of “antiquing” and returned to learn of his win.
That’s also when he heard that an MEA staff person had inadvertently operated a motor incorrectly which broke a stick holding the flag attached to the cartoon teacher. Buckmaster said the staffer was apologetic and seemed concerned that he would be upset.
Instead, he pulled out a small zip tie and fashioned a fix. “I was only upset that I hadn’t thought of breaking it myself.”
Now he hopes someone will buy the piece for his $10 million asking price. “Stranger things have happened!” he quipped.
A showcase for members’ artwork, some of which is purchased for display in MEA offices across the state, the exhibition continues at MEA headquarters through April 14. View the accepted entries from this year’s show.